Director: Samuel Fuller
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
The United States, the 1960s. Johnny Barrett is a journalist investigating a recent murder at an asylum. To solve the case, he intends to have himself sent to this asylum by falsely claiming to be mentally ill, specifically harbouring incestuous desires for his sister. His girlfriend, reluctantly posing as his sister, is appalled by this idea. However Barrett’s editors approve and Barrett himself hopes to win a Pulitzer Prize if he succeeds.
Barrett attempts to discuss the murder with the three witnesses during their rare moments of lucidity, but is frequently thwarted in his efforts. The longer the case takes to solve, the greater the risks to Barrett’s own mental health. Although he has always been quietly jealous about his girlfriend’s occupation as an exotic dancer, this jealousy now becomes more outward, and coupled with his supposed incest, results in Barrett requiring medication and ultimately electric shock treatment. Barrett is now engaged in a race against time; not just to solve the crime but also to save his sanity. When he eventually discovers the identity of the murderer to be Wilkes, one of the asylum attendants, he fights him to force a confession. Barrett is released and receives a Pulitzer Prize but is now a catatonic schizophrenic, an “insane mute”, and his success has come at a great price.
Fuller was not a director admired or appreciated so much during his time, considered little more than a maker of primitive genre films. It was only in the late 1960s with the influence of French critics particularly, that his reputation has been rehabilitated. Fuller famously made a cameo in Godard’s ‘Pierrot Le Fou’, describing the essence of cinema in a particularly well-known scene with Jean-Paul Belmondo. ‘Shock Corridor’ is an important example of the Fuller canon and style; sensationalist, which is apt considering Fuller’s past as a tabloid reporter, energetically simple and making the most of limited resources and a compassion for social outsiders.
Traditional Fuller heroes and heroines are pimps, thieves, prostitutes or orphans – various victims of injustice. In ‘Shock Corridor’, it is doubtful that Fuller empathises as much with his main protagonist, a vain journalist, as he does Cathy, his girlfriend who reluctantly poses as his sister, who dances for a living, or the various patients of the asylum, none of whom can be responsible for their actions but are bestowed great humanity nonetheless because of the various traumas that have caused their afflictions. It is perhaps Barrett’s vanity that inspires the quotation by Euripides that appears on the film’s opening credits; “whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad”. Fuller sees his protagonist’s aims as reckless and foolish. Risking one’s mind to win a Pulitzer Prize is not noble; nor is it about obtaining justice for the death of Sloan, one of the patients; it is purely to satisfy one man’s ego. There are also the moral issues of faking incest, encouraged by Barrett’s editors who are only interested in what makes good copy. Barrett perhaps pays the full price for his and his editors’ greed and arrogance.
Although Fuller has been dismissed in the past as a primitive filmmaker, ‘Shock Corridor’ repudiates this claim, demonstrating a great degree of technical artistry, specifically in how Fuller portrays Barrett’s declining mental faculties. His jealousy towards Cathy’s job as an exotic dancer, where other men covet her, had been kept under control before, but now explodes whilst he is in the asylum. Barrett dreams of Cathy taunting him about this, with an image of a dancing Cathy superimposed upon the screen, whilst Barrett tosses and turns in his sleep. His sexual neuroses are further confirmed in two astonishing scenes; one in which he is surrounded and assaulted by a number of nymphomaniacs and also when Cathy kisses him during a visit, and Barrett recoils as if he truly believes Cathy to be his sister. There is a high use of voiceover generally to reveal memories and previous information about the film’s protagonists, as well as cuts between colour and black and white when the three witnesses in particular speak to Barrett during their moments of lucidity; a simple and effective equation between colour and sanity.
Stanley Cortez, the director of photography on Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ and Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ utilises his talents to full effect for ‘Shock Corridor’. Amongst the many impressive flourishes of cinematography include the opening scene, starting with a small circular shot, which then expands to encompass the entire screen, revealing the asylum corridors. This scene will be repeated as the final shot. The first instance we see Cathy dancing, Cortez starts with an intense close-up, perhaps to reflect her traumatised state of mind (having been asked to falsify incest charges), then zooms out before returning with another close-up to accompany a voiceover of memories and conversations with Barrett.
‘Shock Corridor’ was one of Fuller’s last Hollywood films before his self-imposed exile, which would last more than a decade before returning to make ‘The Big Red One’ and later ‘White Dog’. It is certainly an excessive and shocking film in many respects; consider the traumas of the main inmates – a Communist who thinks he is a Civil War general, a scientist who worked on the development of atomic weapons but has now regressed to the mindset of a child or a black student who believes he is a White supremacist and hunts down any black inmates. The original premise requires a suspension of disbelief and the viewer needs to accept the limits of this sensationalist melodrama. However ‘Shock Corridor’ is a genuinely affecting and insightful film, exploring issues regarding mental health and neuroses with a great amount of empathy and it is certainly difficult to imagine the cinematic adaptation of ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’ without it.